Maine Growers Ask Feds To Loosen Proposed Hemp Rules

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Hemp producers from across Maine are asking the federal government to reconsider portions of draft rules governing their industry.

Dozens of hemp producers, financial representatives and state and federal officials squeezed into the Sheepscot General Store and Farm in Whitefield to talk with state and federal officials about how the proposed temporary rules could cause harm to their business. The meeting was convened by Democratic U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, who told the crowd that despite several barriers that still need to be worked through, there is major political momentum behind the promotion of hemp production in the U.S.

“Luckily, growing hemp and being in favor of hemp is a bipartisan issue. Some of my best friends in Kentucky are all over this thing right now. And we’re all trying to move forward and make it work,” she says.

But the industry has faced several challenges as it has grown in recent years. Some banks and insurance companies have been reluctant to work with hemp producers so far due to legal uncertainty around the crop, which does contain small amounts of THC, the chemical responsible for much of the psychoactive effects in marijuana. And now many growers say the draft rules released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in October could have major negative impacts on their business.

Farmer Joe Saltalamacchia of Unity singled out one provision in particular, which requires that hemp can only contain up to .3% total THC. Gary Fish, who oversees Maine’s hemp program, said that about a quarter of growers in the state would have been out of compliance this year if the state had adopted that USDA standard.

And Saltalamacchia says without more flexibility in those rules, he could be restricted in what he grows.

“My business partner and I on our farm are ready to drop half a million dollars on equipment this year,” he says, “and we can’t because of the new rule. Literally, because things are up in the air, if we try to invest in a flower processing facility, we could lose everything under the new rules. It doesn’t make any sense. But the longer we wait, the equipment becomes less available.”

Earlier this month, state agricultural officials wrote a letter outlining their own issues with the draft rules. And on Monday, state agriculture Commissioner Amanda Beal said the USDA should look at parts of the rules mandating that hemp testing labs be registered with the federal Drug Enforcement Agency.

A USDA official indicated that there are currently only about 30 registered labs nationwide. Beal says those labs might struggle to keep up with the volume of samples from a growing industry.

“I think there might need to be some thought given to phased-in process or time period, so that all these things can be addressed,” she says.

Bill Richmond, the chief of the USDA’s U.S. Domestic Hemp Production Program, told attendees that he had heard many comments similar to theirs at other meetings across the country. He says the agency wants to work with producers, states and law enforcement officials as it crafts the final rules.

“Our entire business model is keeping farmers in business. So the last thing we want to do is make any more difficult than we need to,” he says.

The federal government will accept public comments on the draft rules through Dec. 30.

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